AIMEE MANN & TED LEO                       

Creative chemistry turns songwriting buddies into new duo the Both  

She’s a Grammy- and Academy Award-nominated songwriter; he’s a socially conscious punk-rocker. Together, Aimee Mann and Ted Leo turned a friendship honed online into a new project they’re calling the Both. What began as an onstage collaboration grew into plans for an EP, which then expanded into a self-titled album comprising 11 original songs that fall somewhere between Mann’s literate, bittersweet pop and Leo’s smart, rollicking rock ’n’ roll.

Their timing couldn’t have been better. With the troubled state of the music industry dampening their enthusiasm, Mann and Leo each felt re-energized by the prospect of working together. “I was like, ‘I’m ready for something totally different,’ and I think it’s always a good move to chase down what you’re excited about,” says Mann.

The excitement began when Mann, 53, took Leo, 43, along to open for her on tour in the fall of 2012. Soon she was joining him onstage during his solo set, and he was singing with her as part of her headline performance. Joining forces seemed like the next logical step. “I thought the two of us could do a really interesting show, maybe with a drummer,” Mann says. “I was hearing the possibility of a power trio.”

The duo recorded the album last year in two separate stretches, and they’ll find out whether their enthusiasm for the Both spills over into their respective audiences. “That’s a total question mark,” Mann says. “We have no idea how anybody might receive it.”

How did you meet?

LEO: We have a lot of mutual friends. We met in person eight years ago and saw each other infrequently—once or twice a year. And then over Twitter, we started communicating a lot more and got to know each other better. Quick long story, there’s a song on the record, “Bedtime Stories,” that’s about and inspired by this guy Scott Miller, who was in the bands Game Theory and Loud Family. I was a fan of his work and had some minimal contact with him over the years. But Aimee was actually his friend, and he introduced Aimee to my music.

MANN: Yeah. I think he even sent me your record and said, “You should check this out.”

LEO: It’s an interesting series of cul-de-sacs and winding roads. We met through other friends, then realized we had this connection from years before. That was a crystallizing thing for us, too, in terms of appreciating the good things you have in front of you and pursuing them with a, dare I say, passion.

MANN: Don’t say passion. How about vim?

LEO: Vigor?

How did the project come together?

LEO: Aimee invited me on tour to open for her solo performance, and a couple of things happened: Being on the road together, we became better friends, and musically we started to get inside each other’s heads. I had this one song in particular, “The Gambler,” that I’d written with Aimee in mind. Lucky for me, I didn’t even have to pressure her about it. She approached me about possibly playing bass and singing on it on the tour, and I was already singing a duet with her. The more time we spent onstage together, the more it felt like we had a pretty good vibe, and we should try writing together.

MANN: It was a lot of fun. In this business, anytime fun appears on the horizon, you really have to make an effort to spend more time next to it. Especially on tour, it can be grinding and wearisome, so if you’re able to work with someone who’s fun both onstage and off, you want to hunt that down.

How did fun evolve into a record?

MANN: Ted gets such a full sound, just him and an electric guitar, that I started hearing the possibility of a power trio watching him play. So I started playing on “The Gambler” and we began talking about writing some songs together and maybe doing an EP. Also, Ted and I were both in a similar place because the business is such a question mark. If people aren’t buying records, it’s hard to feel super-excited about making a record, and the idea of doing a project together really invigorated both of us.

LEO: The creative spark when we started, even just discussing writing together, was something more exciting than I’d felt in a long time.

What were the challenges?

MANN: I really like the challenge of writing for somebody else’s voice, or attempting to go into their style, or what I imagined Ted’s style was—which didn’t go much past that it’s a lot faster, there’s a lot of shuffles, and he uses a lot of chord changes.

LEO: You may have nailed it. I don’t think I saw the challenge as writing for someone else’s voice so much as how we were able to make things work for both of our voices. Almost right away, I felt that our singing voices worked really well together. After the first couple of songs we wrote that might have leaned more toward one side or the other, we found a third thing that really was a meshing of our writing styles and our actual voices.

Describe the writing process.

MANN: Usually one person comes up with the initial stem, like a verse, or a verse and a chorus, and the other person will write another verse or a different section. There’s usually a little back and forth from lyric to lyric, but usually, I wrote one verse, he wrote the other verse, he wrote the next section. I would say nearly all of them could be described as 50-50.

LEO: There are some songs with chunks that were Aimee’s and chunks that were mine. There are some where they were more line by line, or part by part, or once the song was initially written, we’d go back and change things.

Did you record live?

MANN: We did it mostly live in the studio. We had this great drummer, Scott Seiver, and we did it in two halves. The first half, we just thought we were doing an EP—and then we were like, “Why not turn this into a full record?” We both realized that was what we really wanted to do. That was where we wanted to put all our energy, that’s where we had enthusiasm.

LEO: We would largely write separately, and then we did the album in two sessions in L.A. And both times we played a show or two before we went into the studio to tighten up.

See this collaboration continuing?

MANN: I do.

LEO: I do too.

MANN: Unless it tanks, in which case, I’m out of here. (laughs) I think we both have a philosophy of, you move forward until there’s an obvious wall, and then you don’t kill yourself trying to scale the wall, you just do the next indicated thing. At some point, obviously, we’ll both put out solo records and maybe we’ll tour the solo records. But I do like the cross-pollination of playing a set and mingling part of the set. It gives me something to look forward to, having my buddy come up, and I get to joke around and play with him. It takes the pressure off. It makes it more fun.

–Eric R. Danton

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